The Importance of Being Present

I have been a devoted Nerdfighter for some years now.

Wait, hold up. Let me explain that.

A Nerdfighter, as defined by the men known as the Vlogbrothers, is “someone who, instead of being made of bones and skin and stuff, is made up of awesome.” These two brothers, acclaimed novelist John Green and his brother, the founder of Ecogeek, Hank, started the YouTube sensation known as the Vlogbrothers in an effort to keep in touch without cell phones. Since then the videos have inspired a huge following of fellow Nerdfighters in the ongoing battle to “decrease world suck” and spread knowledge and thoughtful contemplation about the world in which we live.

There, now that that’s out of the way, onto the main reason for this post.

Today John uploaded a new video entitled “Headless Statues and Elton John’s Piano” (you can see it here: In this video based in London, John poses the question of whether or not actually “seeing things” is necessary anymore now that virtual seeing has become so lifelike. He asks this once after observing a photograph of a piece at the museum, a picture so much like the actual tablet that it takes him some time to reconcile this optical illusion with what he is seeing, and again at the end of the video where he stares out at the London bridge under the night sky.

I would like to answer John’s question here and leave further discussion up to my readers. There is something vital to really appreciating a sight in actually being there to see it. The physical act of standing or sitting there and being in the presence of whatever has captured your attention is incomparable to anything else. There are certain things you can only begin to appreciate about a sight when you are actively there, in the moment and mindful of that moment. Without the privilege of studying a masterpiece in person or climbing the steps of the Arc de Triomphe (and it is a privilege only some have, I don’t deny it.) a great portion of the experience is passed over.

For example, when I went to the United Kingdom with my father to visit some of our family, I brought away a certain calmness of spirit such as I had never really known before. The physical act of walking among the hills and slopes of England and Scotland, the feel of rain-slick cobblestones under my feet (and the subsequent feeling of my forehead smacking into said cobblestones), and the weight of the chilly air on my neck and shoulders all filled and buoyed me throughout the trip. Those sensations leant a certain realness and layer to the sights I saw such as the castles and historical paths. Without having walked those hills and felt my feet sink into the dew-bedecked grass I would have missed a big part of the experience of seeing the landscape.

Unfortunately, I was not yet thirteen and painfully detached from the whole thing, not as mature as I am now at eighteen, and still missed out on much of the philosophical nature of the English countryside. Were I to return now, being firmly present in each moment would be foremost in my mind.

It is that presence, both physically and mentally, that ensures the greatest understanding of what you are seeing, what gives you the ability to not only see this thing but to absorb and embody it, to become this painting, this building, this landscape, and bring it back home with you.


What a Panic Attack Feels Like

Even though panic attacks are unique in the fear and helplessness they cause, there are some things to which they can be compared for clarity’s sake. So, here is my list of things a panic attack feels like.

Hummingbirds filling your body.

When your heart is racing and your pulse thrums just under your skin, you can get this surreal feeling up a million little wings beating around inside of you. Those little birds flit and fly through your veins, brush against your muscles, and flutter within your chest cavity until you want to reach in and rip them out.

Someone shaking you mercilessly.

My biggest problem with panic attacks is the way my body shakes and convulses during a particularly bad one. It’s not just little shivers and shudder. It is noticeable, uncontrollable, debilitating trembling that keeps me from even standing up straight. It’s like someone has just grabbed you by the shoulders and is shaking you until your teeth feel ready to fall out.

Your body drawing into your center.

Every tendon and muscle tightens like a guitar string. Your knuckles go white. Your jaw clenches. Someone or something has grasped the strings that lead to your edges and is jerking them in toward a spot just beneath your chest. All you can wonder is when those strings will finally snap.

A whirlwind buffeting you from inside. 

The main image I get for this one is when I’m shaking so violently and crying with such pitiful force that I just start whipping my head around and sending my hair bouncing around my face. Contrary to the comparison I made a moment ago, this one feels like your pieces are being forced out, and you’ll soon fall into a heap of bits and parts with no clear function.

Your heart is a switch flipped at random.

Probably the absolute worst thing having to do with panic attacks is how utterly random they can be. While I have certain triggers, other times I can suffer an attack out of the blue. It’s horrible because when someone later asks what set it off, you feel so ashamed because you don’t know. You don’t know, and you feel like you were overreacting or being dramatic or that something is irrevocably wrong with you. But that’s just it, they can come from nowhere. More like panic ambushes than foreseeable attacks.

So, these are five things I think accurately describe the feeling of a panic attack. Notice that most of them have to do with your inner workings being affected. That’s because a panic attack is rooted in how your mind and insides work together. No one is hitting you and leaving a panic attack impressed on your chest.

The impression is from the attack pushing out.

Contests and Validation

Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep, my phone rang with a new text, one that would have me jumping up and down for the next few minutes.

A little back story. I work for my college’s literary magazine. We have two co-editors, an engaged couple with a sweet sense of humor, and I am part of the support staff on the literary side as opposed to the art side. Every year, the magazine launches a contest to bring in submissions and generate good public opinion. The categories range from studio art and photography all the way to short stories and essays. A panel of separate judges look at the different submissions and put together a list of first, second, third, and honorable mention winners for us to proofread.

I submitted story, one I worked on and agonized over for days. I drew up at least six drafts and sent it to several trusted readers for feedback before sending it in. I figured it would be better to submit one excellent story instead of the maximum three and having those be mediocre.

This, along with the personal nature of the story, made me nervous about finding out the winners of that category. Never having won a contest like this, I felt sure that rejection was inevitable.

Then, when I grabbed my phone that night, I nearly jumped out of my skin. One of my bosses texted me just to tell me that my story had placed first in its category. I jumped and squealed with my best friend, called my mom, and told as many people as were awake that night. It took me another hour to get to sleep.

There is something unbeatable about the feeling you receive when you’ve won something that means a lot to you. It tells you that all your hard work and practice has paid off in someone else validating your talent. Now, why we as humans need the validation of other people is a subject for another post, but it is a fact, and I felt it acutely as I lay in bed with the thought running through my head, I won. I won first place. They picked my story out of all the rest and called it the best. Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you. 

I can’t wait to see my story and my name in print and in the hands of my fellow classmates and even professors. I only hope they like it as much as the judges did.

Snowmen and Corsages

Last night, on a whim, I took a walk around campus after dinner. My roommate had gone back to the room, and I wandered the quad with music filling my head. The paths were empty, most students having gone home for the long weekend, and I sometimes sang to the setting sun. A light chill slipped down the neck of my jacket, and I took a deep breath.

Twice I stumbled upon something that made me stop. The first time was when I came upon a dirt-caked, broken snowman. It was simply a cracked ball of snow with a pair of branches sticking out of it sadly. The outside sported a coat of dirt and grass, but the inside gleamed clean and white, carefully preserved like wine in an ancient cask.

I thought about approaching it, about plunging my fingers into the cold just to know what it felt like. But I stayed on the sidewalk and only looked. It felt like it would be offensive and disrespectful to go rifling through the snowman’s insides for my own desire. Had it not suffered enough with its mud-stained outside.

It strikes me now that this situation is much like how people, specifically white people, treat other cultures and histories. How we as a group have rummaged in devastated civilizations so we can expand our knowledge. The Native Americans, Africans, and countless others cracked open like dirty snowmen for our own desires, our own whims. Despicable at best.

I continued on my walk from there and paused when I spotted a white flower on the ground. Picking it up, I noticed a pair of straight pins bound to the stem and realized I was holding a corsage. I pried at the petals, wanting to ensure no insects had made their homes in the flower. As I walked and examined I wondered about this adornment’s origins.

Who had worn it? Who gave it to them? What was the occasion? Had they known each other long before it? Did they like each other? Did they have fun? What happened to dislodge the corsage? Why did no one notice its disappearance?

How many questions lie in something so simple and innocent. A million stories bound up with the straight pins.

In the end, I left the corsage in the grass. I passed the broken snowman without another glance. I nodded along to my music, and I went back to my room.

Snow in the South

There’s something strangely wonderful when weather contradicts setting. It only snows once every few years in the south, and when I rolled over in bed last night to the sound of my fellow students laughing and shouting in the parking lot, I wondered if the weather report had come true.

All day people had been murmuring over the possibility of snow flurries in the middle of the night. And, with the rain and the frigid temperatures, it actually seemed possible. In states like Mississippi and Alabama, snow is cause for celebration and panic.

As the clock flicked closer to midnight, I pried open the blinds and peered out at the parking lot connected to my dorm. Snow capped the cars and blanketed patches of grass. College students skipped and ran through the lot, scooping up meager handfuls of snow to make icy ammunition in a coming war.

My best friend and roommate joined me on my bed so we could marvel over the unfamiliar sight of snow on southern ground. There wasn’t much, but it was enough to keep people out in the chilly air for a couple of hours.

Morning came and, with it, an email stating that certain morning classes were cancelled because of the snow.

I, having already showered and dressed, jumped back onto my bed and opened the blinds. Heaps and quilts of brilliant snow-covered the cars and grass. Lines of the frozen stuff topped tree branches. Everything was light and clean and shiny.

While I grumbled over getting up at seven in the morning for nothing, I settled down with my iPad and the giddy thought that it had actually snowed in Mississippi. How wonderfully strange.

Only Girls Allowed: Sexism at Walmart

Heading to the Walmart in the rain that had been falling on Mississippi since the early morning, my only thought was to get inside so my best friend and I could do our grocery shopping. My fingers, chilled to the bones, ached around my umbrella’s handle, and I wondered if the cold would start up the pain in my joints that visited with every drop in temperature. With all of this on my mind I was mildly irritated to find a man blocking the entrance with his shopping cart from the inside of the store.

The man, somewhat advanced in years and wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, stood just far enough from the doors so as not to trigger them into opening but just close enough that I felt nervous approaching.

My worries peaked when the doors slid apart and he held up his hand. I really did not want to deal with any harassment right now, especially with how cold I was.

“Stop,” he said, a telling Southern accent crackling along his voice. “Only girls allowed.”

The tendons in my neck tightened, but I resisted the urge to swear at him and brush past. I knew from experience that old Southern “gentlemen” typically had tempers as long as fishing hook. Instead I worked at keeping my face neutral while my friend laughed in clear discomfort.

He laughed then, as if it were all some cute joke. Dropping his hand like he had suddenly become gracious enough to allow us to enter the store, he looked away.

We passed, and now I permitted myself an anger-filled swear under my breath.

I have become accustomed to people mistakenly addressing me by male pronouns because of my short hair and tendency to wear jackets that disguise my chest. I have been called “gentleman,” “son,” and “young man,” on several occasions, and each time it has stung for only a second before I convinced myself to laugh it off.

This time, however, I was not going to laugh.

Let’s break down exactly what happened here.

  1. I was in a hurry to get inside because of the rain and the cold.
  2. This man, for whatever reason, thought it appropriate to stand partially blocking the entrance with his cart.
  3. I, as an educated woman, was nervous about finding my path to warmth and shelter blocked by a strange man.
  4. He insisted I stop my progress because he apparently wanted to inform me of something.
  5. I, without thinking, did as he said since he was a man, and an older man at that (respect your elders, right?).
  6. While I stood half in the rain, this man proceeded to tell me that “only girls” were allowed in the store (apparently he owns Walmart and gets to decide who can and cannot enter).
  7. He looked directly at me when he said this, which I can only take to mean that he was mocking my short hair, a typically masculine feature.
  8. He thought it was appropriate to joke about me not being a girl (which I am not since I am a woman, but that’s beside the point).
  9. I did not talk back.
  10. I did not tell him his comment was rude and not appreciated.
  11. I did not make any sign that I wasn’t pleased other than a restrained glare.
  12. He laughed, clearly amused at either his comedic genius or my discomfort.
  13. I passed in silence, only expressing my anger when he was out of earshot.

This is the problem with sexism. Normally, I have a retort ready for classroom situations and other possible events, but sexism does not wait for you to have your powerful speech ready. It doesn’t even wait for you to get comfortable. It comes when you’re in a hurry, flustered, tired, upset, or otherwise ruffled. And it catches you off guard because you really aren’t expecting or wanting to deal with sexism on top of everything else you have to deal with (since you’re a fully fleshed human being with a life and personality outside of what sexist strangers think of you, but you wouldn’t think that for how they treat you).

If I could go back in time and redo that event, I would clearly and calmly tell that man just what I thought of him, expletives included. I don’t care how old you are. You do not get a pass on sexism and rude jokes made about someone’s appearance. That man did not know the insecurities I have had to face since cutting my hair so long ago. He didn’t know about all the snide comments people thought were okay to make about how I looked like a guy or a lesbian.

But, you know, even if he did know, I don’t think he would have cared.

Something We Need To Discuss

Panic attacks are things uniquely terrifying and humiliating.

I don’t plan on talking much on here about my personal experience with panic attacks and anxiety, but I feel like it is important to discuss this kind of fear and anxiety in light of how our society handles mental health.

We (or, at least, Americans; I cannot speak for other countries) live in a society where mental illness is not seen as serious unless it affects someone other than the afflicted. We all mourn the loss of lives taken as a side effect of untreated illness (as we should), but how many grieve the cases where a single person fell apart inside without assistance, where they may not have reached out to hurt someone, but they also did not reach out for help. This, most likely because they feared the ridicule and shoving off that would probably come with it. Empathy is key to being human. We have to learn, as a society, to care for the individual, not because they may harm others (that is important of course), but because they are human too and in pain.

I suffer from cued panic attacks. This means that there are certain situations and things that trigger an attack. My attacks include shaking, sweating, heavy breathing, accelerated heart rate, the feeling that I will be sick, and an intense fear that stays with me as an undercurrent for the rest of the day. Normally, an attack will only last for a few minutes, the longest stretching into roughly an hour. However, they don’t just come in a simple burst of the above symptoms. Little jumps in blood pressure, a twisting feeling in my stomach, and a tightening of my muscles can come briefly throughout the day. Those feelings often pass immediately and do not affect the rest of my day, unlike a full-blown attack.

Without going into too much detail, my triggers relate to a certain situation that centers on an individual from my past. Glimpses of someone who looks familiar to that person may make the tendons in my neck stand out. I avoid that stranger, heart beating fast the entire way. A buzzing sensation may take up space in my stomach when I go somewhere I might see this person, and only after I find myself safe will I clench my fists to get rid of the shaking in my hands.

Sometimes it’s not so easy to escape. Sometimes it seeks me out when I’m least expecting it. One instance came up when I received an anonymous message on a website I frequent that brought a surge of bad memories with it. It was one of my worst attacks, and I kept glancing over my shoulder the rest of the day.

The point of all this is that not everyone is willing to share the information I have just posted. And with good reason. In the past I have been told that I am over-dramatic, making a big deal out of nothing, and I need to suck it up and move on. It is a painful and difficult thing to share one’s experience with anxiety and mental distress, so most people don’t. They are told on a daily basis that other things are more important than their mental health, and if they ever express concern for this issue they are being melodramatic or making it up.

It has taken me a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I feel comfortable telling people about my attacks and the issues that accompany them. I was blessed enough to be with someone who understood my problem and did not pressure me to put on a good face and pretend like everything was alright. I was also blessed to take up a station in a work environment that made me feel protected and loved; my coworkers and my boss did not question my feelings or actions, instead offering whatever assistance they could provide to make me feel safe and comfortable. These people, whether they know it or not, did a lot in helping me accept and work on my problems. Their empathy and willingness to accommodate me made it easier for me to admit to having a serious issue and ask for help.

When you suffer from a panic attack, you feel like the whole world is closing in on you. Your body betrays you and leaves you shaking and often in tears. It can be demoralizing and humiliating to have anyone see you like that. You feel like a child or an idiot. You fight to get control of yourself, and it makes it worse. Finally, you have to give in and let the fear take over what is supposed to be yours: your mind and body. That feeling of no longer being autonomous or even a whole person is terrible and something I would not wish on anyone.

If anyone reads this and identifies with what I have said, I encourage you to find someone you can trust and ask them to listen. Even having someone sit with you and let you vent is supremely helpful. There are services available, and I encourage anyone who is financial able to take advantage of them.

Mental health is as serious as physical health, and it is time our society treated it as such.